War always creates business opportunities, and the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine is no different. Some of those opportunities are direct: producers of military hardware stand to benefit from increased orders from the Pentagon to replenish stockpiles of weapons being shipped to help the Kyiv government survive. Some are indirect: petroleum companies are profiting from the rise in world oil prices brought on by the war.
We are now seeing another kind of boon: corporations previously regarded as pariahs are now being viewed by some in a new light. Chief among these are the weapons producers. In addition to the new orders, these corporations are enjoying the fact that some investment advisors and analysts who previously shunned their shares are now arguing for their rehabilitation.
After the war began, two analysts at Citigroup led the way with the claim that “defending the values of liberal democracies and creating a deterrent” meant that weapons makers should be included in funds with the ESG—environmental, social and governance—label. Sweden’s Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken is allowing some of its funds to buy shares of military companies, reversing a position it adopted just a year ago.
Many ESG advocates are pushing back on this effort, but the fact that it is happening is an indication of the inconsistency in the motivations for ethical investing. Some ESG investors simply want to dissociate themselves from companies they find objectionable. Others hope that companies denied ESG approval will feel pressured to change their practices. A third category believe that firms such as fossil fuel producers are susceptible to legal risks that will undermine the value of their shares. And yet others may hope that disinvesting in odious companies will ultimately put them out of business.
These different categories are further complicated by the distinction between companies that are shunned because of their own practices and those which are part of an industry that is problematic.
One thing made clear by the war in Ukraine is that big military contractors are not headed for oblivion, as some hoped after the end of the Cold War. That applies not only to producers of conventional weapons that are now in great demand. Russia’s claims that it just tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile could spark a new nuclear arms race.
All this is not to say that we should be pinning a halo on the likes of Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Technologies. Even if some of their products are currently needed for the legitimate cause of helping Ukraine, much of what that do is still inherently objectionable. A long-term, large-scale build-up of weapons spending is not what we need.
Moreover, the major military contractors have long rap sheets involving repeated violations of the False Claims Act in their dealings with the Pentagon as well as bribery, export control transgressions and other offenses. None of them are model corporate citizens.
The sad truth is that the decisions of ethical investors will make little difference in the future of the military contractors. With or without an ESG seal of approval, they are riding high and will continue to prosper as international conflicts intensify. We can only hope that the world calms down, and we can go back to treating weapons producers with the same disdain we direct toward coal and tobacco companies.